Robinson v. California (1962)

United States Supreme Court

370 U.S. 660

Nature of Case

Whether it is unconstitutional to criminally charge an individual for addiction to narcotics, regardless of proof of possession or use in the state.

Facts of Case

Robinson was approached by a police officer, one evening, on a street in Los Angeles. The officer observed “scar tissue and discoloration on the inside” of Robinson’s right arm, and “what appeared to be numerous needle marks and a scab which was approximately three inches below the crook of the elbow” on his left arm. The officer alleged that Robinson had admitted to the occasional use of narcotics. Robinson was then arrested under the California Health and Safety Code §11721, which made it a misdemeanor offense to “be addicted to the use of narcotics,” regardless of whether an individual used or possessed narcotics in the state of California. The following morning, another officer examined Robinson in the Central Jail in Los Angeles. This narcotics officer also observed discoloration and scabs on Robinson’s arms, and viewed the photographs of Robinson’s arms, which had been taken the night of his arrest. The officer believed that Robinson was not under the influence of narcotics nor suffering from symptoms of withdrawal at the time he met with Robinson.

According to the California statute, an individual addicted to narcotics could be prosecuted “at any time before he reforms.” The offense was punishable by a term of incarceration, “of not less than 90 days nor more than one year in county jail. In no event does the court have the power to absolve a person who violates this section from the obligation of spending at least 90 days in confinement in the county jail.

During his trial, the two police officers were called as witnesses to testify to their observations and opinions that the marks and discoloration were “the result of the injection of hypodermic needles into the tissue unto the vein that was not sterile.” Robinson also called two witnesses, who corroborated his explanation that the marks on his arms were the result of an allergic condition he contracted during his military service. The trial judge instructed the jury that the statute made it a misdemeanor offense to use narcotics or to be addicted to the use of narcotics. The use of narcotics is an act, whereas the addiction to narcotics is a condition or status. The defendant could be found guilty if Robinson had used a narcotic while in the city of Los Angeles, or was addicted to the use of narcotics while in Los Angeles. Robinson was convicted, and the appellate court affirmed his conviction. The United States Supreme Court then heard the case to evaluate whether the California statute was unconstitutional based on the 14th amendment.


Did the Appellate Department of the Superior Court of California err in affirming the trial court’s judgment, which convicted the defendant of being addicted to narcotics under the California Health and Safety Code §11721?



In a 6 to 2 decision (Justice Frankfurter did not participate), the Court reversed the decision of the Appellate Department of the Superior Court of California. The Court held that the appellate court erred in affirming the trial court’s decision, and found the California Health and Safety Code §11721 unconstitutional. In an opinion delivered by Justice Stewart, the Court held that the California statute inflicted a cruel and unusual punishment in violation of the 8th and 14th Amendments. The Court stated, “We hold that a state law which imprisons a person thus afflicted as a criminal, even though he has never touched any narcotic drug within the State or been guilty of any irregular behavior there, inflicts a cruel and unusual punishment in violation of the Fourteenth Amendment. To be sure, imprisonment for ninety days is not, in the abstract, a punishment which is either cruel or unusual. But the question cannot be considered in the abstract. Even one day in prison would be cruel and unusual punishment for the crime of having a common cold.” The Court thus decided imprisoning an individual for a status or condition, such as addiction, was unconstitutional.


The Court concluded that the statute punished individuals for a status/condition, rather than for an act, and criminal law requires an act to be committed in order to be subjected to punishment. They further argued that in contemporary society, states would be unlikely to “make it a criminal offense for a person to be mentally ill, a leper, or to be afflicted with venereal disease,” therefore, The Court believed that addiction should be treated, rather than punished. The Court believed that making addiction a criminal offense would “be an infliction of cruel and unusual punishment in violation of the 8th and 14th amendments.” The Court further acknowledged that regulations concerning addiction could take many valid forms, including involuntarily treatment, and “sanctions might be imposed for failure to comply with established compulsory treatment procedures.”